Mysterious Keys Unlock Surreal Landscapes In 'What Is Yours Is Not Yours' | KERA News

Mysterious Keys Unlock Surreal Landscapes In 'What Is Yours Is Not Yours'

Mar 23, 2016

Helen Oyeyemi is one of literature's weird sisters. She's kin to the uncanny likes of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and Jeanette Winterson, whose names trail down the back covers of her books like a pagan invocation.

Her nouveau Gothic stories are "out there": long and winding, set in surreal landscapes, and elaborately peopled with ghosts, goddesses and grinning puppets. They seem deliberately designed to make a reader feel ... lost. But, even the most baffling stories in Oyeyemi's new collection, called What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, leave a deep impression — like a scar that stubbornly refuses to fade.

The single clue that leads a reader through the labyrinth of this collection is the presence of keys in every one of the nine stories here. Whether they unlock a door or a diary or a nightmare, keys propel Oyeyemi's narratives further into the twilight zone.

In the opening tale, "Books and Roses," a dark-complexioned baby is abandoned beneath a statue of a Black Madonna in a monk's chapel in Catalonia. A golden chain with a key is fastened around the baby's neck — the key to her identity, perhaps?

Another story, called, "'Sorry' Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea," opens in "The House of Locks," — an off-kilter cottage where none of the doors or windows can be closed without force. The waywardness of that house — the refusal of those doors and windows to click into place — mimics the sinister waywardness of Oyeyemi's storytelling style. For instance, what promises on page one to be a tale of a house askew, rambles off into another story altogether about a broken-hearted young girl disillusioned with her pop idol who's been exposed as a violent abuser of women. The idol seems untouchable until he's hexed into doing public penance on the Internet by a conjure woman, with only the very faintest connection to that house.

Sometimes, I have to say, the sinuous style of Oyeyemi's storytelling totally bewildered me; but when the tales are alive enough — and many of them are — I was willing to surrender my expectations of closure, of that "click" of the door, that more traditional short stories usually end on.

What is always a sure thing with Oyeyemi is her mastery of imagery and language — both of which are capable of being shocks to the system. One of the strongest stories here is called "Drownings", which takes place in a strange kingdom presided over by a tyrant. Anyone who angers this tyrant is drowned in the remote "gray marshlands" outside the city. Here's a description of those marshlands:

The air was noxious where the drowned were. The water took their bones and muscle tissue but bubbles of skin rose from the depths, ... some ready for flight, brazen leather balloons. Houses throughout the country stood empty because the tyrant had eliminated their inhabitants; the swamp of bone and weights and plasma also had house keys mixed into it, since many had been drowned fully clothed along with the contents of their pockets.

Those keys again.

While much of what she writes about is decidedly macabre, Oyeyemi is also capable of nailing more mundane subjects, like the mysteries of human relationships, with the deadly accuracy of her language. Talking about the disconnect between a mother and daughter in a story called "Is Your Blood As Red As This?" Oyeyemi says: "There was affection between mother and daughter, but they'd given up trying to express it. ... It was the usual struggle between one who loves by accepting burdens and one who loves by refusing to be one."

That emotionally wise observation is folded into the larger eerie tale, which is about a school of puppetry where the puppets are described as "one step away from living, always one step away." Oyeyemi's writing, in contrast, is so irradiated with supernatural energy that, to cite the title of the classic creepy TV show, this whole collection feels "one step beyond."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of a new short story collection called "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours" by Helen Oyeyemi. She's a young British novelist and short-story writer born in Nigeria, who's already attracted serious critical attention for her work, rooted in mythology and the gothic tradition of Edgar Allen Poe. In 2013, she was included in Granta's list of best young British novelists and her 2014 book, "Boy, Snow, Bird," was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Here's Maureen's review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Helen Oyeyemi is one of literature's weird sisters. She's kin to the uncanny likes of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and Jeanette Winterson, whose names trail down the back covers of her books, like a pagan invocation. Her nouveau Gothic stories are out there, long and winding, set in surreal landscapes and elaborately peopled with ghosts, goddesses and grinning puppets. They seem deliberately designed to make a reader feel lost. But even the most baffling stories in Oyeyemi's new collection, called "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours," leave a deep impression, like a scar that stubbornly refuses to fade.

The single clue that leads a reader through the labyrinth of this collection is the presence of keys in every one of the nine stories here. Whether they unlock a door or a diary or a nightmare, keys propel Oyeyemi's narratives further into the twilight zone. In the opening tale, "Books And Roses," a dark-complexioned baby is abandoned beneath the statue of a black Madonna in a monk's chapel in Catalonia. A golden chain with a key is fastened around the baby's neck. The key to her identity perhaps?

Another story called ""Sorry" Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea" opens in "The House Of Locks," an off-kilter cottage where none of the doors or windows can be closed without force. The waywardness of that house, the refusal of those doors and windows to click into place, mimics the sinister waywardness of Oyeyemi's storytelling style. For instance, what promises on page one to be a tale of a house askew rambles off into another story altogether about a brokenhearted young girl disillusioned with her pop idol, who's been exposed as a violent abuser of women. The idol seems untouchable until he's hexed into doing public penance on the Internet by a conjure woman with only the very faintest connection to that house.

Sometimes, I have to say, the sinuous style of Oyeyemi's storytelling totally bewildered me. But when the tales are alive enough, and many of them are, I was willing to surrender my expectations of closure, of that click of the door, that more traditional short stories usually end on. What is always a sure thing with Oyeyemi is her mastery of imagery and language, both of which are capable of being shocks to the system.

One of the strongest stories here is called "Drownings," which takes place in a strange kingdom presided over by a tyrant. Anyone who angers this tyrant is drowned in the remote gray marshlands outside the city. Here's a description of those marshlands.

(Reading) The air was noxious where the drowned were. The water took their bones and muscle tissue but bubbles of skin rose from the depths, some ready for flight, brazen leather balloons. Houses throughout the country stood empty because the tyrant had eliminated their inhabitants. The swamp of bone and weights and plasma also had house keys mixed in to it, since many had been drowned fully clothed along with the contents of their pockets.

Those keys again.

While much of what she writes about is decidedly macabre, Oyeyemi is also capable of nailing more mundane subjects, like the mysteries of human relationships, with the deadly accuracy of her language. Talking about the disconnect between a mother and daughter in a story called "Is Your Blood As Red As This?" Oyeyemi says (reading) there was affection between mother and daughter, but they'd given up trying to express it. It was the usual struggle between one who loves by accepting burdens and one who loves by refusing to be one.

That emotionally wise observation is folded into the larger eerie tale, which is about a school of puppetry where the puppets are described as (reading) one step away from living. Always one step away.

Oyeyemi's writing, in contrast, is so irradiated with supernatural energy that, to cite the title of the classic creepy TV show, this whole collection feels one step beyond.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours" by Helen Oyeyemi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with comic and actor Michael Ian Black. His new book is called "Navel Gazing: True Stories About Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mother's, Which I Know Sound Weird)." It's about how he's changed with middle-age and how his mother's life has been changed by cancer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.